A little while back, I read an article by fellow Bleacher Reporter writer Patrick Clarke. The article was called "Peyton Manning: Future Hall of Fame QB Would Be a Terrible Fit with Cardinals" and make no mistake, it is a fine, well-written and well-reasoned article. However, it is only one side of the story.
Allow me to present the other side of the coin, if I may.
Firstly, where we agree. The crux of Clarke's article is quite simple. Manning is not the spring chicken he once was, and while he will remain one of the best QBs in the league for one, maybe two, more seasons, that will not happen if he is constantly hammered. The Cardinals' O-line is one of the worst in football and therefore the Cardinals are not a good fit.
No disagreements there. Manning is already a little worse for wear, coming back from what at one point looked like a career-ending neck injury, so if he wants to survive for another couple of seasons, then he'll need all the help he can get from his offensive line. You also won't hear me claim that the Cardinals' current offensive line is anything short of a train wreck—the numbers simply don't lie.
However, that's the first mistake, at least to my mind. Manning simply won't be playing behind the same O-line that gave up all those sacks in 2011.
Cardinals Need to Improve O-line, regardless
Regardless of who starts under center in 2012, the Cardinals need to do a better job of protecting him, and so fixing the O-line will be priority No. 1 for the Cardinals this offseason. Most draft analysts agree that the Cardinals will target a left tackle with their first pick—Jonathan Martin of the Stanford Cardinal seems to be the consensus pick—that will immediately improve things.
Levi Brown significantly improved toward the back end of the season, and a move to right tackle, his natural position, would quickly turn the Cardinals O-line into, if not a dominant force, at least an average one, which is as much as Manning could expect if he stayed in Indianapolis or if he signed with any of the other teams most frequently linked with him.
Manning has never been the most agile quarterback, but that has never stopped him. Like the Cardinals when Kurt Warner was at the helm, the Colts have never been blessed with the best offensive line, but Manning's pocket presence, quick release and ability to sell fakes all more than compensate for this.
You simply cannot rush a player like Manning the same way as you do other players. His ability to exploit any mismatch in the secondary means that teams have to think twice about who to rush and who to drop into coverage. This would give the Cardinals offensive line yet another break.
A significantly improved line in 2012, coupled with teams blitzing less often, lest Manning and Fitzgerald punish them, means that the Cardinals pass protection in 2012 would likely be unrecognisable—in a good way—compared to 2010 and 2011.
Manning Improves Everything
Signing Manning doesn't just improve the Cardinals QB situation, however. Having an elite passer like Peyton Manning on your team also improves things at almost any other position of weakness.
As the Colts discovered to their detriment, Peyton Manning turns otherwise average players into NFL superstars. The Cardinals have multiple wide receivers and tight ends who are the very definition of "average."
In 2011, Andre Roberts, Early Doucet, Todd Heap and Rob Housler all showed enough potential to get fans excited, but all failed to truly establish themselves as real, consistent threats in the passing game. All of these players would expect to see a reasonable jump in stats in 2012 with a consistent and accurate Manning throwing them the ball, and with Manning also setting the standard in practice, it would also be reasonable to expect that other players may also emerge.
Manning also makes running the ball easier, because of the respect that he commands.
Beanie Wells showed that he has the running skills to be considered one of the top 10 rushers in the league, but the Cardinals play-from-behind mentality prevented him from getting as many touches as he deserved, and their ineffective passing game meant that they were often unable to sustain consistent drives. WIth Manning on the field and commanding respect, the Cardinals' run game has the components necessary to dominate next season, especially with Ryan Williams returning from injury.
Manning simply makes those players jobs easier and, as a result, gets better results.
However, that's only the half of it. The Cardinals are expected to make a play for a top No. 2 wide receiver to compliment Larry Fitzgerald with someone like free agents Mario Manningham or Pierre Garcon. Having Peyton Manning as your quarterback makes it a much easier sell to these players.
Manning would make the Cardinals Super Bowl contenders, and players are much more likely to sign with this sort of team.
The Cardinals' passing unit of Manning, Fitzgerald, Manningham or Garcon, Roberts, Doucet, Heap and Houseler is perhaps even enough to make even Cardinals fans spoiled by the greatness that was Warner, Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston salivate.
Contract Concerns are Non-Issues
One of the major complaints about Manning to the Cardinals are the salary cap issues it brings. The Cardinals already have a $63 million man in Kevin Kolb, and do not appear to have the space to bring in a player like Manning while still solving other issues elsewhere on the field.
However, this does't have to be an issue for the Cardinals. Sure, Manning's contract is daunting—he is due a $28 million roster bonus next season—but if the Colts do not pay it to him, no one else will.
Manning is coming of a season where he was sidelined by injury, and while Manning remains one of the top players in the NFL today, the reality is, with an injury of that kind—a potentially career-ending neck injury—no one knows how many, if any, games Manning has left in him. While any player could have their career ended by injury at any moment, Manning clearly carries extra risk.
Whoever signs Manning will have to give him a huge contract, similar in scope and value to the one offered him by the Colts before last season. But like the Colts, the team will back-load the contract and ensure they still have a way out of any "guarantees" included in it.
The Cardinals did a similar thing with Kolb. Yes he has a large, guaranteed contract, but the fact remains that if the Cardinals dump Kolb before March, the majority of his contract, including a $7 million roster bonus due to him, will be voided.
This, coupled with savings made by cutting players like Joey Porter, and renegotiations with Levi Brown and others would give the Cardinals more than enough to make a serious offer to Manning. I would think any deal offered would look similar to that offered Kolb—long term, five or more seasons—with significant raisers in latter years of the contract and performance-based bonuses to sweeten the deal in year one.
Manning may end up costing the Cardinals marginally more than Kolb this season, but given that Manning is clearly significantly more than a marginal improvement over the Cardinals' current starter, it should not be a deal breaker. What Cardinals fan wouldn't trade Kolb and Porter for a healthy Manning?
The timing also work out in the Cardinals favor.
If cut, Manning will hit the free-agent market before March 8, when his $28 million roster bonus is due. This date cannot be moved, which is good news, because the Cardinals can cut Kolb right up to March 17, when his $7 million bonus is due. This gives the Cardinals a full 10 days to evaluate, make agreements with and sign Manning, and still get out of Kolb's contract. That's hardly a long time in NFL negotiation terms, but more than enough for a seasoned veteran like Rod Graves and his team to work things out.
Manning is clearly one of the all-time great players, and any Cardinals fan doubting the sort of impact he could make this late in his career needs only to think back a few seasons to the difference Kurt Warner made.
The team's new QB coach—quite possibly former Cardinals OC Todd Haley—would likely have a field day with a player of Manning's skill, even if his role quickly becomes to inspire those younger players around him, and mentor John Skelton, a player who is very much in the mold of Manning, though he has struggled with accuracy at times.
Whether the Cardinals land Manning or not perhaps depends most of all on what other teams—the Dolphins chief amongst them—are able to offer him.
If a bidding war erupts, the Cardinals do not want to get involved.
Skelton and Kolb were both serviceable in 2011 and, with a full preseason and new QB coach in 2012, should rebound and improve next season. Manning is clearly an upgrade over both players, but the Cardinals have other issues to work out. They must re-sign a number of key players of their own and keep cap space free to pursue other free agents at a number of other positions.
But if Manning is available and the Arizona sunshine, and more importantly its football team, appeal to him, then the Cardinals would be a much-improved team with him in tow. And in spite of a number of concerns and question marks, he would still be a fantastic fit for the team.